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The aquanauts add a human aspect and make a story about science into a story of human achievement
Exploring the bottom of the ocean with SEALAB
Hardcover. 388 pp.
Simon & Schuster.
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy upped the ante in the ongoing space race between the United States and the Soviet Union with a challenge that inspired the nation to reach the next level in its quest for space exploration. In front of a joint session of Congress and the world, President Kennedy said, "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth." It was a stunning goal and after President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Americans worked even harder to achieve their slain President's dream. In July 1969, Kennedy's goal was realized when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon and planted an American flag in lunar soil.
Space, however, was not the only "new frontier" that Americans explored in the late-1950's and 1960's. In JFK's Inaugural Address several months before his pledge to send a man to the moon, he also urged the world's nations to work together in order "to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors." "Together," Kennedy suggested, "let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce."
While the United States and the Russians sent satellites and capsules and monkeys and men into orbit, a group of researchers and U.S. Navy divers sought to explore Earth's largest, most mysterious, least understood, and final frontier -- the oceans. Despite the fact that 71% of our world is covered by oceans and explorers have spent centuries sailing the surface of the seas, almost nothing was known of the depths until the mid-20th century when a dedicated cadre of divers, researchers, scientists, and medical professionals focused on whether humans could live and work underwater and, if so, for how long.
In Sealab: America's Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor (2012, Simon & Schuster), journalist Ben Hellwarth has meticulously researched the undersea experiments that helped to answer many of those questions -- experiments every bit as daring, frequently more dangerous, and far less recognized than the achievements in space exploration. Sealab looks at the brave men who fought claustrophobic conditions and served as human guinea pigs as researchers and medical personnel studied the effects of tremendous pressure in deep water and extended stays in underwater habitats.
The "aquanauts" in Sealab are not famous like the Mercury astronauts featured in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff (although the second American in space, Scott Carpenter, was also one of the most important early aquanauts) or the Apollo astronauts who went to the moon. However, the work of the aquanauts is no less important. The lessons learned in the Sealab experiments helped develop a better understanding of the human body's ability to survive in an underwater habitat -- something that has become useful over the past few decades for deep-sea salvage, the importance of submarines in naval warfare, and commercial interests ranging from underwater cables to deep-sea oil drilling.
Hellwarth does a masterful job in Sealab of setting the scene for what it was like for aquanauts to descend hundreds of feet underwater and spend weeks living and working in a specially-designed underwater habitat. The drama of dives that go wrong, the suffocating thought of being stuck in a tiny chamber for several days in order to avoid decompression sickness, or "the bends", and the otherworldly scenery of an underwater habitat is masterfully told by Hellwarth.
Sealab also features colorful characters, like Navy diver/doctor/researcher/jack-of-all-trades George Bond, or "Papa Topside", as his colleagues called him and the famed French explorer Jacques Yves-Cousteau help add to the sense of adventurism that went along with the experiments of Sealab. The brave aquanauts also add the human aspect that turn a story about science into a story about human achievement.
I knew nothing about this fascinating chapter in scientific discovery, and I'm so glad that I had the chance to experience Ben Hellwarth bringing this amazing history of underwater exploration to the surface in Sealab.
Sealab: America's Forgotten Quest to Live and Work on the Ocean Floor by Ben Hellwart is available now from Simon & Schuster. You can order the book from Amazon, or get it instantly for your Kindle.
Anthony Bergen, Senior Literary Editor: Anthony Bergen is a writer and Presidential historian based in Sacramento, California. His historical work has been published by numerous outlets and historical associations including pieces for the New Hampshire Historical Society's Franklin Pierce Bicentennial, ConsiderableThoughts.com and the National Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. Anthony has also been a contributing joke-writer for several touring stand-up comedians and "The KiddChris Show" on Portland's KUFO FM.